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High Heat

by Alan Matthews
March 14, 2005

Palm Beach Gardens opens its season in improbable, grueling fashion

The first few games of a new season are always precarious. High school teams face a multitude of questions. Is the pitching prepared? How sound is the defense? How will the first-year starters respond?

There's only one way to find the answers, however: Play the games.

That's exactly the approach Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High took. Only the Gators played three of them . . . on Opening Day . . . against nationally ranked competition.

When rain forced the postponement of the first round of the St. Lucie County Classic, Palm Beach Gardens, the preseason No. 23 team in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association poll, had to begin its season at 10 a.m. the following day against preseason No. 10 Gulliver Prep of Miami.

Senior righthander Chris Volstad, a preseason first-team All-American, gave the Gators an edge but was lifted following five scoreless innings because of a pitch count. The 6-foot-7, 205-pound Volstad surrendered two hits and no walks with eight strikeouts. Of his 72 pitches, 50 were strikes.

Palm Beach Gardens couldn't take advantage of Volstad's mastery, however, and the two teams dug in for the late innings of a scoreless game. The late innings became extra innings when both teams had runners cut down at the plate tagging up in the seventh, squandering identical bases-loaded, no-out situations.

"At this point you're realizing the whole (day) is just bizarre," Palm Beach Gardens coach Joe Russo said.

The Gators finally scored in the top of the 14th inning when an errant throw led to an unearned run and a 1-0 win.

After that effort, then-No. 2 Monsignor Pace High of Opa Locka, Fla., awaited in the winner's bracket. After a half-hour break, the two teams engaged in another extra-inning affair. After scoring twice in the top of the eighth inning, Palm Beach Gardens gave up three runs in the bottom half and lost 7-6, a win that propelled Monsignor Pace to the top spot in the first in-season BA/NHSBCA rankings.

Following the defeat, the Gators got another 30-minute rest before meeting John Carroll High of Fort Pierce, Fla.

"I had three starters on the bench because obviously my starting catcher was done after the Pace game, having caught 23 innings," Russo said. "My center fielder was cramping up . . . Even I was tired, and I was just coaching."

Trailing by two runs entering the seventh inning, Palm Beach Gardens rallied to tie the score and force a third extra-inning game.

"When we tied it I was like 'ugh,' " Russo said. "Half of you is excited and the other half is just wondering when it's going to end."

John Carroll plated a run in the ninth inning to win 8-7 and put a merciful end to a memorable Opening Day.

Long-Awaited Debut

Because he's a senior, you might expect righthander Bradley Clark not to be nervous for his season opener for Sickles High in Tampa. But considering it was the first time he had pitched in a high school game, it came with more than the customary first-start jitters.

Clark, a preseason second-team All-American, has long been known to scouts because of his performances on the showcase circuit, but poor grades have kept him from playing for his high school team until this year.

Clark says he had been a lazy student in recent years, and often put off studying until he finally grasped the importance of grades in paving the way for his baseball career.

But when you look further into his background, it's easier to understand why his algebra homework might not be the first thing on his mind.

Clark's mother died of breast cancer when he was 12. Reserved almost to a fault, he doesn't talk much about his emotions on the mound or off it. When asked what he would tell his mother as he closes his high school career and prepares for professional baseball, he says quietly, "Thanks for everything."

The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Clark has immense talent to give thanks for. At a showcase in November he touched 93 mph with his fastball. He also spun a good slider with nice tilt. His mechanics will need to be cleaned up, and scouts have questions about him simply because they haven't seen him pitch very much.

Clark hadn't been sharp early in the season. Scouts point out that the season is young and he's getting acclimated to pitching in high school games, and said his velocity improved from his first outing to his third.

"He was 88-91 and the slider was just OK in his first start," an American League area scout said. "The slider was real inconsistent, real flat and his delivery was rough. If you clean him up mechanically there's probably a lot more (velocity and control) in there."

AROUND THE NATION

The Texas high school season kicked off with a matchup that drew about 40 scouts, as well as Rowlett High's ladder crew. Students sit atop stepladders beyond the right-field fence, cheering and heckling, but they didn't have long to revel in this game. Rowlett edged Allen High 1-0 in a game featuring two of the state's top pitchers. Rowlett senior righthander Kyle Hancock scattered two hits and a walk over seven innings in a complete-game victory. Hancock, a preseason second-team All-American, needed just 78 pitches. He recorded six strikeouts, one against senior catcher Preston Paramore, a preseason third-team All-America pick. Paramore laced a Hancock offering in his second at-bat, but it was caught in the outfield. "It was kind of a playoff atmosphere in February," an American League scout said. "Hancock was pretty good. His curveball was better than it had been in the past." Allen junior righthander Sean Tolleson took the loss despite also going the distance.

There was nearly as much fuss surrounding a showdown in Houston between Second Baptist High lefty Aaron Thompson and Baton Rouge's Central Private High righthander Josh Wall. Thompson struck out 15 in a 2-0 win. Wall recorded 12 strikeouts in the loss.

Just as last season's preseason No. 1, Riverside High of Greer, S.C., lost in the opening weeks, this year's preseason top team, Moody High in Corpus Christi, Texas, suffered an early-season setback. The Trojans' 30-game winning streak that dated back to last year's Class 5-A title run, came to an end when Moody lost 3-2 to Ray High of Corpus Christi in the semifinals of an area tournament. "We stranded eight runners in scoring position, twice had the bases loaded and another time had runners at second and third and just hit shots at people," said Moody coach Corky Gallegos, whose club slipped to No. 3. "I wasn't mad about our performance at all. That's the nature of baseball. You can set the table up but you have to eat at it."

Thirty-seven year coaching veteran Rich Hofman picked up his 900th career win in Westminster Academy of Fort Lauderdale's season-opening 4-3 victory. Hofman, who coached Alex Rodriguez at Westminster Christian in Miami, is Florida's all-time winningest coach. Gene Schultz of Kee High in Lansing, Mich., is the national record holder. Schultz entered this season, his 36th, with 1,404 career wins.

In what was expected to be one of the top early-season games, No. 4 Rancho Bernardo High pasted No. 4 Rancho Buena Vista High 14-0 in a battle between two top San Diego teams. Rancho Bernardo senior outfielder John Drennen, an AFLAC All-American last summer, homered twice in the win.

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